Masterful Bait and Switch

Rolling Stone did a profile on Rachel Maddow a few issues back. The thing about Maddow is that she’s a polemicists polemic. She utilizes thought-judo like a good Socratic thinker, realizing that bludgeoning political enemies won’t help your cause. If you really want to convince someone, you walk them all the way over to your side with small points that they all agree with. Cognitive dissonance studies suggest that while that method does not immediately sway a person’s opinion, it plants seeds that eventually grow into very disruptive tumors of cognitive dissonance (this is because a lot of cognitive theory suggests we personify our ideas, that is, we don’t have ideas, we meld our selves with our ideas, so that changing an idea about, say, climate change, involves more than just accepting facts, it has to do with self-image as an anti-climate change truther, for example). For more on that, read Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape”, I couldn’t pull the exact quote because I only have the audio book version. (FN1)

Here’s how RS summed up Maddow’s style:

Bill O’Reilly, on Fox News, is a combatant and a champion. Maddow is a guide. O’Reilly’s show says, Look at me. Maddow’s says, Picture this.

The perfect Maddow segment, he says, begins with some obscure image from the fringes – “a bird covered in oil in 1979,” say – and then slowly winds its way into the heart of the political debate. “Eventually, you realize that the story of that bird is all about Mitt Romney,” he says, “and it fucking blows your mind.”

This kind of indirection – starting with the obscure and working toward the headlines – goes against the most basic rules of television, but for Maddow it can have a rare seductive power. “It’s really important that in the top third of the segment you don’t say ‘Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,’ or ‘military tribunal,’ or ‘Guantánamo,‘” Maddow says. “Because as soon as you say those things, people think they know what the story is. If you don’t edit mercilessly to keep out all of the words that make people leap to conclusions about what you’re going to say, you’ll never persuade people that you’re going to tell them something they don’t already know.*

I personally had my head blown right off this morning. This clip is worth your time. It’s an opening segment, a long political essay in RS’s words, and unconventional for televised punditry. If you haven’t been seduced by Maddow’s inimitable style, this will surely do it:


(FN1) Although, of course, if you found it disagreeable that I told you to read Sam Harris’ book because of your own opinions about Sam Harris, you’ve just proved my point and really don’t need to bother going to read Sam Harris anyhow. Since you don’t disagree with him on this point at least.

*My emphasis.

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